Oberlin Must Embrace Disabled Students Without “Despites”

I don’t accept “despites.” They lead me to build walls between myself and my family. My best friends forcefully dismantle them. And I see their presence in romantic relationships as potentially abusive.

I grew up with the idea that I would succeed, despite my disability. I spent hours in physical, occupational, and speech therapy in an attempt to “fix” me. Some of these hours were worthwhile because they made my body healthier and more mobile. Others — especially those spent in speech therapy — contributed to a negative body image and made me ashamed of my existence. Yet the adults in my life took every opportunity to tell me that I was smart, funny, and beautiful. I would be successful despite my disability.

I am successful, but it’s partially because of — not despite — my disability.

When Oberlin decided to understaff the Office of Disability Resources to the point where the only full-time professional staff member resigned, it chose to engage in “despites.” It told the 23 percent of students who use the ODR that Oberlin accepted them despite their disability. That very notion is actively harmful.

The day Oberlin sent me my acceptance letter, it didn’t only accept my high school GPA, my extracurricular activities, and my essay writing skills. It accepted my wheelchair. It accepted my inability to read a map. It accepted my phobia of olives. It accepted every strand of saliva that falls from my lips. It accepted me.

Since my acceptance, I have contributed to the Oberlin community. I have been a successful Creative Writing student. Now, I’m considering an M.F.A. This is partially because my brain is hardwired for words. At the end of my senior year of high school, a psychiatrist discovered that I score about average on IQ tests because my visual IQ is so bad it qualifies as a “cognitive disability,” but my verbal IQ is in the 98th percentile. I hypothesize that my brain compensated for its differences, which has allowed me to have amazing verbal abilities even though I get lost in dorm buildings on a regular basis. This semester, I became a bread maker in my co-op because my (albeit irrational) fears of various foods made cook shifts incredibly stressful. Even when I use 80 cups of flour, my bread vanishes within 24 hours. My food fears pushed me to learn a new skill that serves my co-op community in a tangible way. On top of all of this, the visibility of my disability serves to make the campus appear more “diverse.”

Whether Oberlin likes it or not, this community benefits from my disabilities and from those of other students. By neglecting the ODR, Oberlin perpetuates able-bodied and neurotypical privilege. It still benefits from the neurological and physical diversity brought by disabled students, while failing to provide the support structures that allow those students to be happy and healthy in an environment that wasn’t designed with them in mind.

I am no longer the high school senior struggling with self-hate. I love my body and my brain. Sure, I don’t like burning myself making bread because of my lack of gross-motor skills. I don’t like the fact that the burn still hasn’t healed because I compulsively pick at the scab. However, I recognize that those are the negative manifestations of the best parts of myself.

I love myself because I am funny, emotionally unstable, loving, transgender, child-like, creative, and disabled in so many beautiful ways. I expect that my friends, family, and romantic partners love me without despites. I demand that Oberlin College respect me and other disabled students without any despites attached. Disabilities are differences, not difficulties.

I know that providing services for disabled students can be financially costly, but I don’t care. One in five Oberlin students depends on ODR services. That’s far too many to be ignored. No student should feel the need to change who they are to accommodate a college that doesn’t have the staff to give the student the accommodations they need. Oberlin, get your act together.